He was there in the distance. I could see him through a warm haze. I could reach out and touch him. His skin was soft and warm. On his arm I could feel the fine blonde hairs. I felt each one and the moisture there made his skin even more inviting. But he wasn’t there. He was a memory in the waves of heat that rippled above the desert. I pulled my feet along as he continued to fade away, and then I’d catch sight of him again. He’d smile a stoned smile and turn away. I had to follow, I had no choice. On he moved leaving no tracks to decipher. I’d been following him for days, my legs wanting no more, each step forward a struggle as the sand shifted and denied full progress. Over a dune he went and I watched as his brown shoulders sunk, sunk, sunk, and a sidewinder moved silently and quickly across his path in front of me, erasing with his serpentine signature his tracks, footprints that I wasn’t sure were there to begin with.
I climbed to the top of the next dune anxious to spot him below. There he was again, sitting cross-legged on the edge of a small oasis, the water impossibly blue. He knew I was there looking down on him. He didn’t look up to meet my eyes. The stillness was blinding. There wasn’t a sound, nothing to bestow balance. I stole a gaze at the horizon and the craggy mountains that were certainly a border. Not a bird, not a lizard, only that sidewinder, and even he was leaving in his desperate need for something more. The sand swallowed my foot whole with every step as my muscles burned and I dug for strength. There was nothing solid, nothing to hold onto. Even the dune hadn’t been there not too long ago. It all moved but in secret.
“Squeegy!” I’d cried earlier, but he couldn’t hear me. And he couldn’t see me because he wasn’t really there. But I could see him, or what used to be him, and that was all I had to follow. People die in the desert. They die of heat, of cold, of thirst and venomous creatures that know no welcome. They fall in stages. They crawl for an ounce of shade and slowly hear their own breath become shallow as cracks appear and the tongue swells in its own futile need. Only then does the circling life expose itself, waiting, waiting, waiting. Beady black eyes wait and watch from one thousand feet in the sky for a sign that all is finally done, the last burning breath has been taken.
The others were behind me, safe in the cool blankets. I’d done all I could. I’d left what money I had. I’d gone to Juniors with a message for Leroy Reed. They had a fresh cloth bag of Miss Moons garden of gifts. They would wait for me, I knew they would. They would wait by the refrigerator that held cold, white milk to be poured over moons, stars and clovers in his honor.
“You can’t catch me,” I heard Sqeegy call to me.
“I have to!” I yelled back.
“You can’t. It doesn’t work that way.”
“It does too. Thats exactly how it works!” I stopped to find him again, peering through the blasting heat. But he was gone again. The blue oasis had gone with him. Nothing but cactus stood there. I panicked. Through it all I’d never lost sight of him for long. But as I collapsed to my knees on the crest of yet another dune, he was nowhere to be seen. Even the vultures had gone…
“What’s wrong? You’re scaring me!” He whispered.
“Huh? What happened?”
“Are you dreaming? A nightmare?”
“You’re all sweaty. Did you have a nightmare?”
“I… I guess.” I sat up and looked around in the dark. “Zac and Daniel. Are they here?”
“What? Of course they’re here. I think you had a nightmare.”
“Yeah. You were kicking and stuff.”
“Wanna get up? Go sit on the bench for awhile?” Squeegy asked.
“O.K.” My mind was still trapped in it. Shards of the dream were cutting me all over. Grey death. Darkness under a blazing sun that strove to wither all life away. The abject despair of feeling like I’d lost it all. Him, and them, and everything that meant anything to me. I was soaked in my own sickness, a stark, slow terror coated me like oil.
“You should rinse off,” he said as he pulled me up.
“O.K.” He brought the still damp towel with us, and we quietly opened the door and closed it again behind us.
“Sit for a minute, settle down. It was just a dream,” he said.
“I…I don’t know why… I don’t know why I did it, why I had that dream.”
“What was it about?”
“Um, I don’t know… Well… It’s uh… It was just a nightmare. You were right, I’m sorry. Did I scare you?”
“No. I couldn’t wake you up. It seemed like you didn’t wanna wake up. Wellll, like you couldn’t wake up.”
“You sure I didn’t scare you?”
“James, its O.K. You woke up.”
“Did Donnie and Steve get back?”
“Not yet. It’s still early though.”
“Oh. I love you, Squeegy. Like I never knew I could.”
“What?” He blushed. “Thanks. Are you alright?”
“Just catch your breath for a minute.”
“Squeegy, you have to tell me where you are…”
“I’m right here…”
“No. If you ever go anywhere. If I ever go anywhere. If I can’t find you. You have to tell me where you are.”
“I only did that once since you came. I went to The Cup and you and Donnie came…”
“I know, I know. Just please, don’t ever do that again. But, it’s not that. I have to know where you are.”
“I’ll tell you, O.K? I promise!” He cried as he climbed into my tired arms. “You’re crushing me!” He whined as I realized I was holding him too tightly.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.” I promised as the tears rolled down my cheeks.
“Its O.K., just don’t break me,” he sniffled.
I could still bring back photographs of that dream in my mind years later. They were cold and evil. They were grey pictures that I couldn’t seem to burn away. But they brought with them memories of holding him so tight, of sitting there on that bench and being so completely in love and so completely scared of losing that love, of losing him. I knew I’d scared him too. His concern for me was so deep that he was reluctant to admit it, and that made it all the worse. I was supposed to be his rock, the confident one, the one he looked to as he sat cross-legged in the morning and picked at the carpet while he waited to see what I had planned for the day. The images of the desert crossed my eyes and then the shame of scaring him, of failing him. I held him tighter. I didn’t want to think of tomorrow and more tomorrows, so I held him tighter. I gave everything I had to him. He held my neck and I felt his cool tears there. My hands knew the shape of his back and he let go and went supple with deep sighs.
I was helpless again. He led me to the shower and washed the grey desert from me. He took care to make sure I was dry before we went back inside and he found a clean blanket to cover us with. He checked to be sure that Zac and Daniel were covered from the world outside. He crawled in beside me.
“I’ll stay up if you want,” he whispered.
“Why?” I asked.
“To watch. So you can sleep.” I pulled him into me once again.
“We’ll both sleep,” I promised him.
“What happened?” Donnie asked as he looked up at me from his blankets the next morning as I got up to piss.
“Huh? Nothing,” I answered as I continued for the bathroom. Was it that obvious? I’d just had a bad dream, thats all. Could the whole world see it on my face? I studied myself in the cloudy mirror. My eyes were puffy and red and I did look a little stressed.
“James, C’mer,” he whispered as he got up and pulled on his jeans. I pulled on mine and followed him out to the bench expecting the third degree.
“You wanna go tomorrow night? To the house? The one on Mulholland? Cody set it up, and we can take four guys altogether. They might do pictures and maybe a movie too. It pays pretty good. You might get twenty if they only do pictures, but more if they do a movie or something else. The worst it might be is twenty. There’s one thing though… they want a younger kid too. I was thinking of Squeegy, but I know you might not want him to go. I mean, it’s safe and all. You’d be there. I’d be there. We wouldn’t let him do anything alone, right? But like I said, they’ve got a pool and there’s other kids who live there and they’ve got games and a dog and a lizard and stuff. Cody and me are going for sure, and you, if you want. And well, whatever you think about Squeegy. Steve said he’d stay here with Zac and Daniel if you go.”
“I don’t know. Can I think about it?” I stalled.
“Yeah, yeah man. So what’s up? You sick or something?”
“No. I just didn’t sleep very well.”
“Oh. So that guy fixed the toilet, huh?”
“Yeah, he fixed it. I cleaned a little in there too.”
“Cool, it looks nice in there. Everything alright? I mean with the little guys and all?”
“Yeah, we’re fine, Donnie,” I answered.
“Far out. Me and Steve went to a couple parties last night. They had a kegger at one with a bunch of shithead highschool kids there, and the other one was a fucking huge smoke out. They had bongs going everywhere and some good Mexican weed. Steve got too fucked up though. That dude can’t handle his shit, man! I mean he just can’t maintain, you know?”
“Yeah. You watched out for him though?”
“Of course, man! Steve’s a fuck-up, but he’s O.K. really. I mean yeah, I gotta drag him outta there before some dickwipe football player kicks his ass but I’m used to that shit, you know?”
“Yeah, I know,” I agreed.
“Damn right you do! I remember the night you decked his ass!” Donnie laughed.
I busied myself that morning. Squeegy often did it when something was bothering him. He furrowed his brow and worried over little things. He knew better than to mention the night before in front of the others, but I could feel him checking my face for a sign. We ate our cereal and headed to class. It went fast with a few laughs as we painted our bowls to get them ready for the kiln. Squeegy and Daniel decided to paint flowers on theirs and giggled over the dozens of tiny flower petals that they claimed were actually penises in all different colors. The crafts lady came around commenting on everyones design and never figured it out even though she peered down her beak at them for the longest time while commenting on the varieties of colors they’d chosen. The minute class was over we headed straight for Miss Moons.
“And so you had a difficult night, yes?” She asked as she studies our faces.
“How did you know?” Squeegy asked her.
“That is not so important. Would you like to talk about it?” she wondered. Squeegy looked to me for a sign.
“I don’t know what to say about it,” I tried.
“He had a bad dream, wellll… Kind of a nightmare,” Squeegy admitted as he cast his eyes to the table and looked for something to fumble with. She passed him the small silver spoon she sometimes used to measure her powders and stir the healing brew that sent clouds of aromas through the room. He began to test how well his thumb fit into it as he ran his fingers along the raised pattern on it’s handle.
“Perhaps you might put the fire on under the kettle, yes?” She suggested with expectant eyes. He smiled at her reliance on him and bumped his shoulder into mine as he got up to do his chore.
“I didn’t know you had a nightmare,” Daniel said.
“Me neither. We didn’t wake up,” Zac added.
“It wasn’t much of anything,” I assured them.
“It was scary enough!” Squeegy corrected me as he returned.
“Bad dreams can come at anytime. Usually they are a sign of anxiety, yes?” Miss Moon suggested.
“What’s anxiety?” Daniel wondered.
“It’s when you’re scared, mostly like at night,” Zac offered while searching her face for agreement.
“It can be at night if it is a dream because that is when we sleep. But anxiety can come at anytime. Sometimes it is reasonable and sometimes it is not. Sometimes when we remember the details of the dream we can discover what it was that we were anxious about, yes?”
It wasn’t going well. I could remember in horrific detail every second of the dream, but I sure wasn’t anxious to revisit them, let alone describe them to the group. Just then the whistle rose from the kitchen and Squeegy bounced up to finish his chore. Miss Moon set four cups in a row on the heavy wooden table and began coaxing the mixture into them.
“I don’t know if I should talk about it,” I tried again.
“Of course, you don’t have to,” she agreed.
“If it scared James it must have been pretty bad!” Zac exclaimed.
“I wasn’t that scared!” I began to defend myself.
“Wellll… you were kicking and all covered in sweat and I couldn’t hardly wake you up…”
“O.K., Squeegy!” I cut him off.
“Well? I wanna know!” He whined. Miss Moon finished pouring the steaming water into the cups as I began to sweat anew.
“Let’s all have a few sips and calm down, yes?” She suggested. Just breathing in that mixture was enough in itself. It took you places you’d been before but had forgotten since the last time you were there. The aroma filled the lungs and the air and even coated ones skin in its mixture of things of the earth and sea.
“Was it because Squeegy went to that kids house by himself?” Daniel asked.
“His name is Pepe, and he’s this kid we met at the park. He was sitting under a tree all alone and I went and talked to him. He’s really nice and he invited me over to their apartment and stuff,” Squeegy explained to her.
“That could be. But perhaps that’s not all of it. That may be part, but I think there might be more, yes?” She asked.
“I think I wanna know for a different reason,” Squeegy began. “It seems like you went somewhere in your dream. And…Wellll, we always said we’d stick together… I mean, thats the most important thing. When we were sitting on the bench you said stuff about me. You told me never to go anywhere if you don’t know where I am, right? That’s what you said. Then it kinda makes me feel like you went somewhere in your dream but… you went without us. If it’s scary it’s O.K… buuut, I think you should tell a little about it… so you keep your promise.”
Grandpa would have said, “That guy could sell shoes to a snake!” He had me again. And the tea had me. Daniel’s soft and caring cheeks had me. Zac and his big brown eyes, his unwavering honesty had me. Miss Moon and her gentle touch had me. The heavy wooden table that held the world in place and the room with no corners had me. And so I began. I told them about the desert and the sand that pulled at my every step. I told how I had been following him for days in the blinding heat and that even though he wasn’t running, I couldn’t for the life of me catch him. I described the grey cactus and the empty sky and the blue oasis that he took with him when he vanished for the last time.
I couldn’t look at anything but the table top as I unfolded the sharp edges of my anxious adventure. The tea seemed to make it all somehow easier, more distant, less likely to grab hold and begin again. Her hand found mine somewhere along the way and her paper skin seemed so fragile against mine. My hands were twice the size of hers, yet it was hers that held real strength. I told about the vultures that waited at one thousand feet for the sign, the sign that the last ragged breath had been taken.
I had been worried that they might somehow absorb it, that it could be transfered from one persons sleep to anothers just by the power of suggestion alone. I worried that I might infect them with the sidewinders serpentine signature. It might have happened too, if not for her and her house that was still there every time we turned the corner. We knew it would be there, and she would be there. Everything else could change, move away, disappear, but there below that weeping willow and tangle of vines would sit the house that paint had long ago abandoned. She would be there, and she would know the answers before we asked the questions.
Squeegy’s hand had been resting on my leg through the entire story. When I finally ran out of story and looked up, Zac and Daniel were surprisingly settled. I realized then that they’d been closely following Miss Moon’s reaction. It was as if she’d laid a paper-skinned hand on them too. Squeegy laid his head on my shoulder and sat quietly. He too carefully read her reaction, and her reaction was nothing if not empathy. She didn’t analyze the dream, she didn’t need to. We all knew what it meant. It suddenly wasn’t so complicated. The desert wasn’t so gray, the sand no longer held my feet, and since his hand had never left my leg, I had no need to search for him. I knew where he was. He was with me.
We sat while she and Squeegy replenished his supplies. Then Daniel got up and crawled onto my lap. He held my neck and placed a perfect kiss there. Zac took my hand and smiled at me. Miss Moon assured me. She didn’t have to say a word. She told me it was only a dream, that it was a reminder of how much we all needed each other. She also said without words that worrying would do no good, that the universe would do what was right, that all I had to do was trust it. She told me that no one is ever in total control and sometimes you need to give others the gift of allowing them to care for you.
We headed to Pete’s for orndogs and rench ries, Daniel humming in his own world on my back, and Squeegy and Zac laughing about penis petals.